Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I think that is what accounts for certain theoretical physicists obtaining culturally iconic status. Einstein images are everywhere and with his death yesterday, the coverage on Stephen Hawking has been “massive.” (Yes, there is a pun there if you know physics.) And yet, I am certain that more than 99% of the people that are somehow enraptured with either individual have little or no clue about what their scientific contributions actually were. Their culturally iconic status is quite, quite separate from their contributions to science, because frankly most of culture is clueless about what they did.
The veneration of Hawking in particular vexes me. His contributions to physics are important, even very important, but did you see the movie about his “love” life? The man was a cad to say the least. Aside from his physics, there is very little I find admirable about Stephen Hawking, his accomplishments in the face of his handicap notwithstanding. It’s like kids in Che Guevara tee shirts – I just want to ask them if they understand they think a murderous thug is cool. Every time I hear a young person talk about how “cool” Hawking was, I want to ask them if they would treat a lady that way or if they are female if they would want to be treated that way.
Hawking’s cultural contributions in particular have been to move the culture away from religion. Which also, I think accounts for the iconic status. Those that see science and religion as opposing forces want to venerate those that cling to science as a means of understanding everything. Science and religion are not opposed, science reveals the Creator through studying His creation. When science sets itself up in opposition to religion what is actually happening is that scientists are seeking to set themselves up as priests, if not gods, unto themselves. Hawking relished his priestly scientific role and hence his cultural damage probably far exceeds his scientific contributions.
Today I mourn the passing of a very good theoretical physicist. Today I am sympathetic towards a life that managed to make major scientific contribution while battling extreme disability. Today I am empathetic with those that have lost a loved one. But I do not mourn the loss of the cultural icon and it is my prayer that the press’ rush to venerate a man that is unworthy of such cultural veneration would end very quickly.